Our kennel opened its doors in the autumn of 2008 after some frantic building during the few short summer weeks in which the ground is not frozen. Before that, we only had a few (c. 12), dogs living with us, in the cages close to our house.
Most of our dogs are Alaskan huskies, although we also have some Siberian huskies. Disney generally use Siberian Huskies or Malamutes in their films, rather than Alaskan huskies, and hence, those types of dogs are what most people associate with the breed. When people first get here, most of them doubt that they will ever be able to learn the names of all of the dogs. However, many have very unique personalities and all are very different in appearance. Some, for instance, are small (Samu, Petteri), some strong (Ponde, Lassi), some timid (Varna, Nalle, Ted), some playful (Monty, Pepe, Princess), some calm (Tinnu, Hamppu, Spice), and some excitable (Much, Pinki, Timon and nearly all of the pups at present) . . . It is actually unexpectedly easy to learn them all.
Where did the dogs come from?
Chocolate and Sausage (brothers) were the first to arrive, followed closely by Princess and Cloud (also siblings). These dogs, as well as the three little sisters, Trouble, Grumpy and Pinky, and Princess and Cloud’s other siblings, Bono and Madonna, all came to us from a husky farm near Luosto.
Bernie and Much (brothers), and Monty (shown jumping in excitement, below), and Liz came from a German friend, Dominik, who was racing dogs for a few years in Sweden. Lizzie is now too old to race and has become a house dog but Much and Monty are good dogs (however Bernie is a little lazy).
The bulk of our initial dogs (44 in total) came from Juha Pekka’s farm in Ivalo in Eastern Lapland, where they were down-sizing from c. 350 dogs. All had very much been working animals. Hence, many are still not used to being touched or stroked, etc. They shy away from you when you come near them and we continually work on socializing them so that they start to want to be near us, and so that they are not so scared of new people. The older the dog was when it arrived, the harder it is to turn the character around but people who visit us year after year say that they see a huge improvement in the pack each time.
In the autumn of 2008, three of our female dogs, Sanna, Madonna and Princess, gave birth to 20 puppies in our house (7 in the bedroom, 6 in the office and 7 in the gear room). Some of our sweetest dogs came from this time, like Suka, Arrow and Cherry (from Princess). Some of our best future leaders also came from these litters, like Diva and Bruiser (from Sanna), and some of our most solid wheel dogs like Yoda and Malik (from Madonna).
In the Spring of 2009 we took 12 dogs from a German guy called Torben who was moving home with his dogs and needed to downsize quickly. Some of these were experienced runners, but six were incredibly shy (and aggressive) pups of c. 8 months, (the Meggy, Merlin 2, Muller etc litter from Bandit) when they arrived and needed lots of extra attention. After two years of work and some castrations, they are all finally running.
Hulda, one of the most difficult dogs on our farm came from here and she continues to challenge us when near other females.
In the autumn of 2009, Matsku gave birth to the five ‘planet’ pups – so called since they are named after planets (Mars, Mercury Mick, Pluto, Venus and Saturn). Learn more about Matsku and Jopa's pups, here.
In 2010, Trouble gave birth to 7 pups whose names all begin with ‘T’ (Tundra, Taiga, Terror, etc). Learn more about Trouble and Monty's pups, here.
At the start of 2011 we had a surprise litter from Grumpy – Trouble’s sister. The ‘vet check’ had been written in the wrong column on our medical charts and we hadn’t taken her to the vet for an ultrasound at the appropriate time. When they started to come, we were crossing our fingers that there would only be one or two – but of course there were 9 in the litter! Learn more about Grumpy and Tengri's pups, here.
During our time running Valimaa farm for Santa Safaris/Transun UK (in addition to our own farm), we kept breeding at a minimum on their farm (since we had inherited so many pregnant dogs from a zero control breeding programme). Nevertheless, there were still two 'litters' during this time. One came from a dog recuperating at our farm who we believed was far too old to have pups (she had already been on the retirement list for a year!) The lucky mom, Maija, was put back into harness the following year but she is finally fully retired in Switzerland with the Frei's now and her pups are, a little unfortunately, split between the two farms. Learn more about Darja's pup, here and Majia and Hamppu's pups, here.
The Detective pups came to us in 2012, (learn more here), initially came from Pasi Heinonen's farm as a foster litter since he had had a large number of litters that year and we hadn't wanted to breed. In the end we only Starsky. Pasi was kind enough to gift him to us for the help with the pups and even though we had intended to ask to buy two, we didn't feel we could then ask for the second, so Lacey, Magnum, Marple, Bergerac and Sherlock returned to Pasi's farm.
That turned out to be providential since we ended up 'rescuing' the 'A' pups later on in the winter of 2012-13 from a relatively local family that had a house-full of fostered kids and didn't need the extra mouths to feed and care for too. Learn more here. We were glad that we hadn't effectively had two new litters that year.
The 'litter of the gods' came to us as foster pups from Aki Holk's farm (indirectly from Lance Mackey's farm), in autumn 2013. Learn more here).
Starsky, the 2012 detective pup that remained behind with us, was so good (despite the fact that his lack of hair is maybe a slight issue in the far north) that in the summer of 2014 we went back to the farm he had come from and bought Hippi, pregnant with a known combination sire.
The 'Fluffies' (Hyper Pouchons) and Super Monsters, care of Gilles Elkaim & Camp-Arktika in 2014. Gilles, a french musher with a base in Eastern Finland, had been planning an expedition in the far north and therefore needed to 'downsize' his group of dogs. He was keen that the dogs would move in litter groups to new homes and we took 2 litters - one of Taimyrs, an ancient Siberian breed which are pretty rare, worldwide (he is one of the few recognized breeders and is trying hard to save the race from extinction) and one litter which was a Laika Nenet / Taimyr mix.
Laïka Nenets (Nenets Herding Laika) were originally a reindeer herd shepherd used by the Nenet people (a Samoyed group) from the European Russian Arctic and Western Siberia. Although not a sleddog by tradition, they fit the work perfectly because of their endurance, resistance to cold and intelligence. They tend to bark more than most sleddogs and the smaller ones are 25-35kg. The father of the fluffies was Gilles' lead dog, Pouchok, for 4 years during arctic journeys that covered over 7000 kilometers!
Taimyr dogs (Taymyrskaya ezdovaye) were traditionally bred by the Nganasans People (Samoyed group) from the Taimyr region of Siberia for their exceptional sleddog capabilities and thick fur prized in clothing manufacturing. These were the types of dogs that Amundsen used in his North-West passage and which Marco Polo referenced as being "as big as donkeys".
This is a photo of Eden, one of the Nenet Laika / Taimyr mixes.
How do we ensure that we breed when we and not the dogs, choose?
To be to choose when the dogs breed (and not have it chosen for us) is about prevention.
As a basic tenet, males and females live apart in separate areas of the farm, with most males living in the running circle area and females in pairs in cages. We identify female dogs (and castrated males) by their red collars (as opposed to males who wear any other coloured collar), in order to avoid cases of 'mistaken identity,' where a dog could be placed in the wrong living area by accident. (Pilgrim and Arrow, for instance, might otherwise be mistaken for each other, as might be brother and sister, Sanna and Samu).
We also need to know exactly how fertile our females are at any time. Three times a week each female is carefully checked for heat. This check is conducted by the Medical Overseer, i.e. someone that is familiar with the dogs and their bodies. The information is recorded in our heat chart, which uses different colours for the different stages of the cycle. Thus we can easily calculate how fertile a dog is at anytime. Most dogs are in heat for 3-4 weeks and as an extra precaution, we mark the 5th week as a safety week. Over time, allows us to build up a complete picture of their heat cycles so that we can both predict when a dog is due to come into heat and track to see if anything anomylous is happening which might indicate an underlying health issue.
We also use this information in several practical day-by-day ways. First we print 2 copies of the heat chart each week and they are placed in key areas around the farm, so that all guides can reference it. (All guides are thoroughly trained to read a heat chart, even if they are not the medical overseer).
Next we have red wooden signs to hook underneath the dog's name sign on their cage. This is an effective way for guides to know immediately to be extra vigilant with that particular dog. When moving the females they can be careful where they are walked and they can be careful about which dogs are placed outside their cages.
The heat data we collect is also added to our weekly 'feeding chart,' which we refer to, for example, for guidance when we need to move dogs between different cages or areas of the farm. We would not want, for example, a female in heat to be placed in a cage near to the area that the sleigh teams are made since the male dogs will be at best distracted and at worst, they may wonder across to say hello.
Finally, and most importantly in the winter season, the information is updated 3 times a week in the document used to decide which dogs will run on what teams and for what safaris. As a general rule, with only one or two exceptions, we never run mixed sex teams, so as to reduce the risk of accidental pregnancies. But some girl teams may be on the same safari as the boy teams, so we need to know which females are in heat in case we need to move some dogs around to balance speeds between the teams. Aside from the increased risk of pregnancy, the males can behave in a more aggresive manner if they are in close proximity to a female on heat so we run the female / 'heat teams' at the rear so that the males don't get distracted by their scent in front. (It also means that when we come back into the farm through the front gate, the female teams are immediately positioned so as to be able to quickly put them back away in their cages - again minimising the chance of them having unwanted attention from the boys.
On the farm our dog's collars are also colour coded. Females and castrated male have red collars, while uncastrated males have a different colour collar. In this way, if a new guide is not positive on the name of each dog, at least they can be sure not to put an un-castrated male in a cage with a female.
An example of our heat cycle record-keeping can be seen below.